The no frontier


Bolivian artist Sonia Falcone’s “Campo de Color (Color Field)” features hundreds of clay bowls filled with spices and pigments.

Bolivian artist Sonia Falcone’s “Campo de Color (Color Field)” features hundreds of clay bowls filled with spices and pigments.


Unsettled is open through Jan. 21 at the Nevada Museum of Art. A panel discussion with artist Justin Favela titled “Views on Velasco: The Politics of Mexican National Landscape” takes place Jan. 12, 12-1 p.m. Talks from the Center for Art + Environment conference in September are now available online on the “Nevada Art” channel on YouTube. For more information, visit

Right now, a small painting by Ed Ruscha hangs in the Nevada Museum of Art. It depicts a curving piece of earth set against a deep sunset with the words “intense curiosity” on the far left side of the canvas and the phrase “gross neglect” on the right. It could be the timeline for humanity. It could be a trajectory of the frontier. It could be an endless horizon.

It’s probably all of these things, but in the context of Unsettled—the NMA’s 200-piece exhibition spanning four continents and two millenniait is also a reminder that the view from where we stand is very limited.

Curator Joanne Northrup aims to widen this perspective by giving museumgoers a metaphorical You-Are-Here sticker for this seemingly endless frontier, reorienting onlookers to the land we really belong to, a place called the Greater West.

“When Pangaea was a single landmass, [the Greater West] was all the coast,” said Northrup. “It’s split up, but we still have things in common.”

This newly conceived territory reaches from the top of Alaska to the tip of Antarctica and curves around to Australia and Papua New Guinea. And these regions do have some things in common—the tectonic activity that makes the once-coast of Pangaea resource-rich, histories of colonization, and art-making traditions that draw on wide-open spaces.

It also has a less hierarchical idea of history than simple Westward expansion. Director of the Center for Art + Environment William L. Fox likens it to a rhizomatic root system.

“The spread of culture can be conceived as if it were an underground series of roots that were all connected, and things sort of popped up in different places almost at the same time,” said Fox.

Trading in the model of east-to-west movement and single-stalk roots for spreading, leaking routes of passage and connection, we end up with an exhibition that looks, on the surface, like a mashup of disparate artwork.

Soft, curving paintings by Georgia O’Keefe and Agnes Pelton vibrate next to Graciela Iturbide’s 1979 photograph of a Seri woman holding a boombox.

An installation of 625 cardboard submarines by Chris Burden, coupled with Trevor Paglen’s investigative photography on government surveillance, provide a backdrop for 2,100 years worth of indigenous pottery.

Brian Jungen’s totem poles—constructed from primary-colored golf bags—keep watch over a blurry cowboy painting by Ruscha, Bruce Conner’s film on nuclear testing in Bikini Atoll, and a time lapse video of Ana Teresa Fernandez’ performance “Erasing the Border.”

Throughout the exhibition, Ruscha—also a co-curator for Unsettled—displays his saturated canvases as a backbeat for discordant works, touchstones for what it means to live with the faults and fault-lines of the Greater West.

Colliding Cultures

In a piece titled “Atomic Princess,” Ruscha captures the state of dissonance we all experience living under nuclear threat. The white lettering of the words “Atomic Princess” float on a blurry blue and red background that brings the look—but not the feel—of inspirational quotes from an Instagram feed. From his vantage point as a veritable art star, Ruscha exchanges with other, older and younger, arguably less-famous artists around the museum about topics ranging from nuclear anxiety to cultural erasure.

Perhaps nowhere is Ruscha’s dialogue more apparent than between his and conceptual Tlinget artist Nicholas Galanin’s work. In “Lost Empires, Living Tribes,” Ruscha’s large-format oil spells its titular text onto a blurred blue and gold ombre colorfield. To the right, Galanin’s two photographs depict roadside signs in Sitka, Alaska. One bears the words “No Name Creek” in big letters over the smaller “Watlacheix’k’i Heen,” the creek’s indigenous name. The second sign, which reads “Indian River,” has been spray painted to say “Indian Land,” a small gesture of defiance that makes Ruscha’s point and then some.

Galanin’s exhibition-fronting photograph, “Things are Looking Native, Native’s Looking Whiter” also hits on this topic of invisibility, as an image of Princess Leia is split-screened with a historical photograph of a Hopi-Tewa woman. Both look out with similar expressions and squash-blossom hairstyles, making the viewer wonder where Star Wars got its inspiration.

But it’s the backstory that really stings. Commissioned in the early 1900s by J.P. Morgan to document “dying” indigenous culture, photographer Edward Curtis took the original shot of the young Hopi-Tewa woman.

When the tribes didn’t die out, however, the removal of their culture continued, prompting native artists to remind people of the fact that they still exist.

“Portraying culture that’s still alive and well and resilient as vanishing fits the narrative that goes along with the rest of genocide and the removal of this people,” said Galanin. “It forces that idea. … But we’re still telling stories. We’re still documenting. We’re still sharing. We’re still engaging.”

Reclaiming culture is the theme of another contemporary indigenous artist’s work, Apsaalooke photographer Wendy Redstar. In four highly stylized self-portraits collectively titled, “Four Seasons,” Redstar assumes the role of romantic Indian maiden as she poses in front of fake-looking Technicolor landscapes with cardboard cut-out props, blow-up deer and plastic skulls. Each season is two-dimensional by design, with the artist more often than not making eye contact with the viewer, letting you know that she knows that you know how popular culture consumes people who look like her.

All Consuming

Appropriation is not limited to bodies in Unsettled. The struggle for resources—and specifically the imperialistic nature of trade—is on full display throughout the exhibition.

In a map commissioned for the show, Los Angeles-based artist Frohawk Two Feathers illustrates how the colonization of the Greater West may have played out—with native gods fighting back incoming ships in a mythical, magical Pacific battle.

On the floor below, Bolivian artist Sonia Falcone lays out hundreds of clay bowls filled with spices of trade—cinnamon, cayenne, turmeric, achiote, cocoa—and brightly colored pigments that stand in for minerals in “Campo de Color (Color Field)”.

Ruscha’s “Chocolate Room”—which used 800 bars of Hershey’s milk chocolate from Costco as a silk-screen “ink”—also references the cacao trade but can absolutely be enjoyed in its own right. It is a room lined with chocolate-coated paper.

“You don’t have to know anything about art to walk into the ’Chocolate Room,’” said Northrup. “You ask, ’What is this? What am I looking at? What am I smelling?’ It just ignites your curiosity.”

The fact that Unsettled kicks up a constant stream of questions is what ultimately keeps the exhibition from replacing old boundaries with new. Nothing is fixed in the Greater West. The Mexican border disintegrates with sky blue paint, stories about cowboys and Indians are revealed to be self-reflexive, and myths about dying indigenous cultures clap back with enough force to make you listen.

Just make sure you visit before next Sunday when Unsettled will go on tour to other areas of the Greater West.